In state capitals and city halls nationwide, the National Rifle Association is demonstrating its enduring ability to thwart new firearms regulations and expand rights for gun owners — even after a school massacre in Newtown, Conn., gave the gun-control cause new momentum.
Just last week, Illinois state House members declined to consider proposed limits on assault weapons amid a surge of negative phone calls and e-mails from NRA members and other gun owners. In Wisconsin last week, legislators wary of provoking the NRA backed off a proposed ban on loaded firearms in the public gallery overlooking the state assembly chamber. In suburban Los Angeles, Glendale City Council members anticipate a packed and emotional meeting next week as a result of NRA-issued “grass-roots alerts” protesting proposed limits on gun shows. And legislators in at least seven states are weighing whether to allow public school staff members to carry weapons to work.
How the NRA exerts influence over Congress
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“We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us,” the president said.
The local and state-level skirmishes underscore the obstacles that await President Obama and congressional Democrats as they prepare to push new gun-control measures in the face of stiff opposition from the NRA and its Capitol Hill allies — many of whom represent areas where gun ownership is a cherished value.
Gun rights advocates suffered a setback in the immediate aftermath of the Newtown shootings when Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) vetoed a bill that would have allowed concealed weapons in schools, day-care centers and other public places. Another defeat came this week, when New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) approved new bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips. It was only by moving with extraordinary speed that the state prevented the NRA from mounting its typically muscular opposition.
The group and its allies, confident in their traditional ability to influence congressional action, consider state capitals the prime battlegrounds and are planning to shore up their influence where they may be vulnerable, such as Maryland and other Democratic-led states.
Many lawmakers naturally embrace and applaud the NRA’s aggressive defense of gun rights. Even legislative opponents speak in admiring terms of the group’s organizational skills, which they say can outmatch the most powerful interest groups — chambers of commerce, medical associations and police federations.
Obama acknowledged the importance of the NRA’s base as he presented his proposals Wednesday, saying that success in Congress would require support from “voices in those areas and those congressional districts where the tradition of gun ownership is strong.”
The NRA and its vast network of local affiliates achieve their success through a mix of skilled local lobbying and voter mobilization. Annual report cards rate legislators on an A-to-F scale based on voting records, and the group sends millions of blaze-orange postcards during campaigns to tout its friends or attack its enemies. As a reward to those with high grades, the NRA provides endorsements and campaign support. It also offers friendly lawmakers access to legal counsel and legislative research.